Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Right Place At The Right Time

As difficult as it is for me to admit, there is more to Yellowstone than mind–bending geology. I know what you must be thinking. How can this be?
One day in Yellowstone, a black wolf walked past my car

It’s a true fact, though. Yellowstone has an impressive diversity of wildlife inhabiting its 2.2 million acre corner of northwestern Wyoming (with smidgens of Montana and Idaho thrown in).  But as with the rest of life, there are no guarantees, no assurances that the curious Park visitor will be lucky enough to see what he or she hoped to see. The wildlife of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem exists on its own schedule of life and death. If we happen to be somewhere at the same sometime as, say, a bear or a beaver, a moose or a marmot, an elk or an avocet, we should consider ourselves very fortunate indeed. 

Sometimes I have been in that right place and right time during my summers working as a park ranger in Yellowstone. It’s all pretty random, though. Five minutes too early or ten minutes too late, the bear has already crossed the meadow, the beaver has already swum upstream. At times I’ve hiked for miles only to see a couple of ground squirrels and not much else. But on the Mystic Falls trail near Biscuit Basin, even that ground squirrel was worth a second look. 

IMG_2513Ground Squirrel_Mystic FallsTrail
It seems that wildlife is always eating

One day after hiking for several hours we came upon this black bear near the Beaver Ponds trail near Mammoth. We watched from across the lake as it foraged for its lunch. It was moving towards our trail route so we changed course and went around on the other side of the lake.  Sadly, there was not a beaver to be seen on this trail; I had hoped to see at least one. 

You can’t name a trail for an animal that isn’t there!  I made an executive decision and renamed the trail It’s Been Decades Since a Beaver Was Anywhere Near These Ponds

IMG_1613Beaver PondsTrail
Black bear foraging on the Beaver Ponds trail

IMG_1620Black Bear
Grizzly bears have distinct shoulder humps, but black bears do not

I work 40 hours/week as an interpretive ranger in the Park throughout the summer and thought that my wildlife viewings were sadly infrequent during the five months I spend there.  Looking back at these images, however, I think I've been delusional.  I've seen lots of wildlife.

I missed seeing the grizzly that was wandering around near the Grant Village visitor center. I have occasionally seen one dash across the Park road in the early morning hours, but that’s about the extent of my sightings. 

But I watched grizzlies up close and personal nearly every day when I worked in Alaska a couple of years ago, so I’m fine if I don’t see them in Yellowstone. I’m satisfied if all bears not only survive but thrive with as little interference from humans as possible. 

Yellow bellied marmots are interesting little critters that are common on rocky slopes and in the higher elevations. One actually stood its ground and charged us for a few feet as we moseyed down Death Canyon trail in Grand Teton.  

Crazy rodent. 

Yellow-bellied marmot checking us out

This American avocet was not supposed to be anywhere near Yellowstone Lake. It was blown off course by a spring storm and found warmth and safe harbor for a few days on Fishing Cone at West Thumb Geyser Basin. I just happened to be walking along the boardwalk and watched as the avocet stubbornly held on to its windswept perch while the wind blew rain sideways.  When the storm was over, the avocet was gone.

IMG_1694 AmericanAvocet OnFishingCone
Fishing Cone - a port in a storm

IMG_1684 AmericanAvocet OnFishingCone
American avocet on Fishing Cone

On my way to a tracking class at the Lamar Buffalo Ranch one late day in May, I stopped to watch a herd of bighorn sheep graze peacefully on a hillside between Mammoth and Tower. Further down the road I watched a small herd of pronghorn leap gracefully across the highway. 

IMG_1756Bighorn Sheep
Bighorn sheep, between Mammoth and Tower

IMG_1767Bighorn Sheep
Bighorn sheep

IMG_1769 Pronghorn

Bison stop traffic wherever they go. They can do whatever they want.  They are all over the Park. 

BisonJamHayden Valley(c)
Bison jam in Hayden Vallley

This long–tailed weasel posed briefly on the travertine of Soda Butte before scampering away. 

Long-tailed weasel

One evening I spotted a female great–horned owl perched on the chimney of the superintendant’s house in Mammoth…
IMG_1910Female GreatHornedOwl
Female great horned owl
…and the next morning I got up early to greet the sunrise and check out her two owlets high in a nearby nest. 

I watched these owlets until well past sunrise

I occasionally drove the ten miles from Grant Village to the Lewis River in search of North America’s largest rodent. One day I stood and I walked, I gazed and I peered, but never did see any beaver riffling the calm mirror of the early morning river. As the sun slowly crested the ridgeline to the east, I turned around to consider what might be living in the rocks near where my car was parked. I’ll bet there are pika in there. They love rocks!
And sure enough there were pika. So although I didn’t see what I’d driven ten miles to see that morning, I did see something different and it was just as first–rate. 

Pika squeak sounds like "I'm so cute!!!"

It seems that nearly every morning and/or evening there were elk outside our housing. There might be males with huge antlers, or females with calves, noisily munching on the grass. Sometimes we couldn’t leave our apartment until the elk had finished grazing its way across the yard. 

Four-legged lawnmover with antlers

Room with a view

Moose are much more common in Grant Teton and that is where we came upon this female, munching its lunch along the Death Canyon trail. 

This was one scraggly-looking moose

Later that same day we happened to be driving the Moose–Wilson Road where we saw this beaver swimming near its well–kept lodge. Finally! Right place! Right time!
I love beavers!!!

Hiking near Sentinel Meadows one afternoon we came around a grove of trees into a clearing, startling two seemingly camera–shy sandhill cranes.

Sandhill cranes didn't linger long for the camera

A few weeks before the summer season ended two friends and I were driving through Hayden Valley early one morning on the way to Norris Geyser Basin. There was a cluster of cars by the side of the road so we decided to pull off and check out the action. 

We quickly saw why all those cars had stopped.

Within seconds I was bouncing up and down in my seat, hyperventilating at Sue to “Take some pictures! Take some pictures!” I was the driver and (stupidly) had put my camera in the back of the car under all the packs. 
I had not seen a wolf all summer and never had seen one so close. It looked like it had just finished swimming across the Yellowstone River and it was making a beeline straight towards us. With eyes wide open and mouths agape, the three of us sat there speechless as that black beauty ambled right in front of our car. 

Sue was fearlessly clicking her new camera like a madwoman. I hope these pictures turn out because I’m not sure what I’m doing! We watched as the wolf doggedly crossed the highway and veered off across the hills towards a destination known only to itself. 

We looked at each other in astonishment. WOW! The entire episode could not have lasted more than three or four minutes. The wolf was there, and then it was gone. If we had driven by five minutes earlier or ten minutes later, we wouldn’t have seen any of this. The three of us were simply in the right place at the right time, a random occurrence in time and space. 

We consider ourselves very fortunate indeed.  And from now on I will always put my camera where I can reach it.

Thanks to Minnesota Sue for the use of her wolf pix.  Come back next summer and we'll take more!


  1. You did have a lot of wildlife encounters. Sometimes I think the visitors stand a better chance of seeing animals as they are out and about more during the day. But now that you mention it, I've seen a bit at the canyon also.

    1. Exactly! We've seen much more than we remember.

  2. What a treat! thanks for yet another wonderful adventure alongside you while you explore. And a nice way to put it all together. Happy Thanksgiving, Mz Nina and Happy Trails!!!

    1. Glad you enjoyed it, Mz Judy. I realize that i really DID see a variety of wildlife while I was in the Park.
      As for the beavers, I have seen them at Lewis River (that's why I go there) but not every time. But I DO take my camera!
      Happy Trails to the Thanksgiving table to you!